Index > Interconfessional Dialogues > M-RC > Honolulu Rep. 1981 | CONT. > sec. 3
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Christian Moral Decisions - sec. 3



   39. The Christian vocation is heard in the teaching of Christ, the Savior, who instructed his disciples to "be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5,48). The perfection of God is his love, for God is love (I Jn. 4,8,12). The Christian is aware that discipleship of Jesus means imitation of him whose love was so great that he did not hesitate to lay down his life for all (Jn. 15,13). The Church announces the totality of the mystery of Christ. It echoes his call to us to be converted and to follow along his way, stressing in all things the primacy of charity. The Church is the heir of divine revelation and proclaims Christ and his message to further his mission and to summon men and women to respond in faith, hope and love.

   40. The Church is also called "God's people" (I Peter 2,9-10). It is within the setting of the Christian fellowship that one hears the call of Christ and is moved to respond with the fullness of one's being. The call is never ending and the response should be constant and willing. Through the power of the presence of the Holy Spirit, God's gift to his people, the Church accepts responsibility for taking part in the formation of the individual conscience, always aware that it is the secret core and sanctuary where each of us enjoys an intimacy with God. The Christian derives much benefit from the riches of the Church, i.e. the Scriptures, the community, worship and teaching, all of which have their effect in order that each person may bring forth much fruit.

   41. The Christian likewise is called to live in the setting of creation, and enjoys the society of men and women. Here the Church stands as a student and teacher. It learns from human developments and is enriched by advances in empirical sciences and behavioral studies. It thus becomes aware of human problems and difficulties and is prepared to bring its own insights and sensitivity to the search for solutions. It is strongly aware of the presence of evil which seeks to challenge the Kingdom of God. It therefore does not hesitate to identify and confront what is evil in order to preserve and affirm what is good.
   The Church is likewise aware of a person's propensity to sin and failures. It supports every effort to answer the call to perfection. The Church acts in mercy and kindness but when challenged in matters of morality is compelled in the Spirit to speak.

   42. The Lord has called us to repent and believe that the Good News and therefore this call to conversion should manifest itself in the activity of the Christian. We have said earlier that "We acknowledge ourselves as under the imperatives of love that follow from the summons to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, in our lives and in his world" and to pursue "more effective ways of expressing our faith, hope and love in and to the world for which Christ died" (cf. above, § 31).
   We acknowledge that belief and behavior, faith and works, should not be separated. Therefore issues of ethics and morality, which involve the relation between conscience and authority, are not peripheral to but at the heart of the faithful hearing of the Gospel.

   43. Whether we see conscience as a separate faculty or as the mobilizing of all our faculties to discern the good and shun evil, we agree that the human capacity we call conscience is the gift of God and is of vital significance for the moral life.
   Conscience does not act as an independent source of moral information. Since people have the responsibility of fostering, protecting and following their conscience, it needs to be formed and informed and must therefore be open to guidance from authority.
   Therefore in moral decision-making, as in coming to terms with doctrinal formulations, the Christian is one who stands under authority. The normative authority is Scripture interpreted in the light of Tradition (the living voice of the Church), Reason and Experience (cf. above, § 34).

   44. People have both the responsibility to see that their conscience is open to authoritative guidance and the right freely and faithfully to follow that conscience. Thus we agree that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to conscience, or to be restrained from acting according to conscience, "as long as the just requirements of public order are observed" (Vatican II: Declaration on Religious Freedom, n. 2) and the rights of others are not infringed.
   We are agreed that "freedom of conscience" does not mean "make up your mind on moral matters with no reference to any other authority than your own sense of right and wrong". There may come a point when the Church is compelled to say, "If you persist in exercising your freedom of conscience in this way you put yourself outside the Church".

   45. We agree in asserting the importance of natural law which God himself enables us to perceive. In this perception the supernatural gift of prevenient grace plays a major part. "No man is entirely destitute of what is vulgarly called natural conscience. But this is not natural: it is more properly termed preventing grace... Everyone, unless he be one of the small number whose conscience is seared with a hot iron, feels more or less uneasy when he acts contrary to the light of his own conscience" (J. Wesley, Works, VI, 485). The natural law which is thus discerned stems from the generous provision of the Creator God.
   What is revealed in Jesus Christ, our Incarnate Redeemer, is God's hidden purpose already being worked out through the whole of his creation; the "ethics of revelation" do not negate but are consistent with the created order within which God brings human nature to its fulfilment. ("Our human nature is the work of your hands made still more wonderful by your work of redemption", Collect of Christmas Day, Roman Breviary). Therefore moral theologies based on natural law and those that appeal more directly to an "ethic of revelation" need not be in conflict. Consequently the moral judgements the Christian makes, as a Christian, are not in fulfilment of an imposed divine imperative alien to his own well-being but are a response to the will of God to enhance and fulfil all that is genuinely human. While we can distinguish between the duties one has as a member of the Church and as a member of the human community, these should be seen as harmonious, with conscience providing guidance in both spheres.
   We recognize that in both our Churches official statements and actions are frequently assigned greater authority than they are entitled to. Conflict about what weight to give to such statements and actions can thereby arise within the individual conscience, and between Christians.

   46. We have already indicated (above, §§ 27 and 34) that we are in agreement that the Church must always be subject to the headship of the Incarnate Lord and that the Holy Spirit makes Christ present to us, so mediating his authority to us in love through Word and Sacraments; these in turn are witnessed to by the worshiping community and by Creeds and Confessions. Only then do we come to the point of divergence, which must not be allowed to obscure this agreement. Within this context, what persons or bodies in the Church can give guidance on moral issues and with what authority?

   47. In both our Churches we have various procedures for offering guidance on moral issues, and this Commission recognizes the need for closer study and comparison of these procedures. In neither Church does the following out of these procedures always match the ideal, for each Church recognizes "how great a distance lies between the message she offers and the human failings of those to whom the Gospel is entrusted" (Vatican II: Church in the Modern World, 43).
   In both our Churches we are under ecclesiastical authority, but we recognize a difference in that some pronouncements of the Catholic Church are seen as requiring a higher degree of conscientious assent from Catholics than the majority of pronouncements of the responsible bodies of Methodism require of Methodists.
   Where there are differences between us on what decisions should be made and what actions taken on particular moral and ethical issues, we need to look not just at these differences but at what gives rise to them, in each case enquiring whether they reflect only social and historical conditions or fundamental divisions over issues of conscience and authority.


   48. Both the Denver and the Dublin reports contain sections on "Christian Home and Family"
   We wish to reaffirm what was said in these reports, particularly the general picture of Christian marriage presented in Denver, § 71, and the call to common witness "to the centrality of marriage in God's purpose for the human community" so strongly voiced in the Dublin report, § 39.
   Our discussions have led us further in our agreement about the sacramental nature of marriage and its implications for the wider community.

   49. In particular we are able to affirm that it is not only the wedding but the whole marriage that is sacramental. The relationship, the continual, lived out, total giving and sharing of the spouses is a genuine sign of God's love for us, Christ's love for us, Christ's love for the Church.
   While Catholics speak of marriage as a sacrament and Methodists do not, we would both affirm, in the words of the introduction to the 1979 "Service of Christian Marriage" of the United Methodist Church: "Christian marriage is the sign of a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman. They fulfil each other, and their love gives birth to new life in each and through each. This union of love is possible only because Christ is the bond of unity... The marriage of a baptised couple is a covenant between equals that celebrates their unity in Jesus Christ. They make a little family within the household of God; a ‘little church' in the Body of Christ... The Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century were unwilling to call marriage a sacrament because they did not regard matrimony as a necessary means of grace for salvation. Though not necessary for salvation, certainly marriage is a means of grace, thus, sacramental in character. It is a covenant grounded in God's love. A Christian marriage is both a plea for and an expression of daily grace" (p. 14). So too the Introduction to the 1969 Rite of Marriage of the Roman Catholic Church teaches: "Married Christians, in virtue of the sacrament of matrimony, signify and share in the mystery of that unity and fruitful love which exists between Christ and his Church; they help each other to attain the holiness in their married life and in the rearing and education of their children and they have their own special gift among the people of God" (§ 1).

   50. Marriage is sacramental in nature because it is the living and life-giving union in which the covenantal love of God is made real. This is the point of Ephesians 5,21-34, where marriage is related to "a great mystery; but that I mean in reference to Christ and the Church" (5,32).
   The text is actually speaking of two mysteries, both hidden from the beginning: the mystery of marriage and the mystery of Christ and his Church. It points out that Christian marriage is inserted into the sphere of redemption and that married love is sanctifying in all its spiritual and physical expressions.
   The Old Testament image of marriage as a covenant describing God's relationship with Israel illustrates the richness and power of imagery. The covenant tradition in Hosea is really a multiplicity of images which extends into images of marriage, of land, and of fatherhood. The story is a intricate, often puzzling blend of the bonded and the broken, and by reflecting on their own daily experience in the light of it married couples might greatly enrich their lives.
   The significance of the man-woman relationship of life and love in relationship to Christ and to the Church is proclaimed in the medieval use of Sarum, the preferred rite of the English Churches prior to the Reformation (dependent in turn on the Gregorian Sacramentary), a text now used in the revised Roman Rite of Marriage.
   That marriage is a sign of Christ's covenant with the Church, precisely because as a social institution it is perceived as a covenant, is clearly stated in the nuptial blessing of the Sarum use: "O God, you consecrated the union of marriage by a mystery so profound as to prefigure in the marriage covenant the sacrament of Christ and the Church. O God, you join woman and man and give to their alliance, the first to be established by you, that blessing which enriches it, and which alone was not forfeited in punishment for original sin by the curse of the Deluge". The mystery is not only in the "mysterious" union of Christ and his Church but also in human marriage itself. Thus, marriage is a natural sign of a holy mystery precisely because the relationship, conjugal and parental, is what Christ takes up and sanctifies.

   51. The richness of this vision of Christian marriage can be explored endlessly. It speaks of the reciprocal illumination between the natural and the supernatural, between the world of creation and the world of redemption, between the secular and the sacred. The good gift of the creator becomes also a personal gift of the Savior. This vision shows that the sacramentality of marriage is not to be limited to the marriage ceremony, since the entire fabric of the marriage lived out by the couple is what constitutes its ecclesial witness.

   52. When we assert that the sacramentality of marriage springs from the whole of the marriage, several themes can be noted in particular as belonging to the sacramentality and spirituality of the marriage

- The couple's daily love for each other, not only with its joys but also with its pains, sufferings and uncertainties over so many years, reflects the covenant love of God for us. The couple's sexual sharing should itself be understood as sacramental.
- The couple's love for their children not only in bearing them, but even more so in the years of love and care for them, proclaims or sacramentalizes God's love for all of us.
- The couple's reaching out in concern to the larger community is also very much a part of the sacramental witness of marriage.

The demands of a marriage as it develops are themselves a source of spiritual enrichment.

   53. For the Christian marriage demands commitment, fidelity and permanence. However unpopular this may be today, the Church must proclaim it because it is the will of God and revealed in Scripture and expressed in the liturgy.
   The commitment of the spouses to love for each other is rooted in their love for God (cf. Mt. 22, 3 3-40) and His love for them. Their communion is made possible by the God who loves them first (cf. I John 4,17).
   Fidelity counters the deepest and most pervasive temptation of marriage, that of withdrawing into a self-centered and ‘privatized' life. Marital fidelity is not purely negative, a mere safeguard; it is a self-giving that creates a community of love and life and a deeper mutual trust in which there can be greater freedom and openness to others. But such faithfulness is anchored in God who makes faithful marriage possible.

   54. We all subscribe to this teaching on Christ's will for matrimonial permanence and fidelity and this despite our different approaches to the problems of matrimonial nullity and of marital breakdown. We believe that further dialogue on these topics may well reveal closer unity of understanding, since we are all alarmed at the trivialization of marriage and the increase of divorce in the societies from which we come.

   55. The bond of Christian marital union between man and woman is holy by its nature. Through their commitment to marital partnership the spouses pledge themselves to love and serve one another in Christ. Marriage likewise is ordered to the procreation and education of children. The marital union thus grows into the unit of the family. Here the marriage partners are associated with the creation work of God who both blessed and charged man and woman at the beginning "Be fruitful and multiply" (Gen. 1,28). Human intimacy and human responsibility thus deepen and mature as all the family members grow in wisdom, age and grace before God and men and with one another.

   56. Married couples need to discover and affirm the beauty and the treasure of Christian marriage. Because marriage is a sacramental covenant it is a living, prophetic sign to all people. The love and life of a married couple is a particular visible and credible expression of the universal "loving kindness and fidelity" of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In this way the spouses and their children should be open to the wider community in which other people become their neighbors in Christ.
   A blessing at the end of the Rite of Marriage of the Roman Catholic Church concludes:

"May you always bear witness to the love of God in this world, so that the afflicted and the needy will find in you generous friend, and welcome you into the joys of heaven".

   And the Introduction to the Marriage Service of the United Methodist Church reminds us that

"the purpose of Christian marriage is not only to fulfil the needs of domestic intimacy, but also to enable the family to accept duties and responsibilities in the Christian community for society at large... The family...is a ‘domestic Church'" (p. 15).

The Future

   57. A feeling which emerged from our last meeting (agreed to be one of the best we have had) and from reflection on the past quinquennium as a whole is that any further stage of our dialogue should concentrate more intensive study on such problems or differences as have recurred and seemed most obstinate in the past three quinquennia. This greater concentration was we believe already beginning during the past five years.
   In the belief that time will be saved if a program is already set out for the consideration of our Churches in this report, we unanimously submit the following themes and suggestions for procedure:

   Theme for quinquennium: THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH

Year 1. The Doctrine of the Church.
Year 2. The Church as Institution (Structures and Polity)
Year 3. The Doctrine of the Primacy
Year 4. The Church in the Modern World (cf. Denver report: etc).

   Detailed program for the first year: DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH (Feb. 1982). There would be four papers:

a) General paper on Sacrament and Sign (the Sacramental idea—a philosophical and theological paper)
b) The Church as Sacrament: how God works through his Church
c) The Word and the Church
d) Universal and Local: the Communities and the Church (NOTE: this to be a doctrinal paper).

   Methodists would be responsible for papers (a) and (c), Catholics for (b) and (d).
   Each paper would be matched by a response prepared by a designated member of the other team; the paper would be sent to him well in advance of the meeting to ensure this.

   58. Our experience strongly underlines the advantage of having papers available to all members in advance and we propose as a principle that writers of papers should aim to get them to the secretaries two months before the meeting. A short bibliography is also useful. Finally we would hope that both the WMC and the Catholic authorities would endorse the importance of the dialogue and ask that those taking part give it high priority among their engagements.

   59. We submit these recommendations in a spirit of thankfulness to God for what has been achieved, of confidence that continued dialogue of a more concentrated kind on central issues will continue to bear fruit, and of hope that this and earlier reports will be more widely studied in our Churches and lead to a steady increase in that cooperation between Catholics and Methodists which is already encouragingly evident in many places.

   60. What we have shared and said together about the Holy Spirit enhances our confidence about the future of our relations. We are all alike under the judgement of God, but all alike confident of the presence and power of his Spirit, which is Love. That Spirit brought us into dialogue; has produced fruits of that dialogue; while we continue joyfully to accept this authority and prompting we cannot presume to set limits to what he may yet work in us. While we continue to work at our problems we are challenged to neglect no opportunity of witnessing in common to what God does for us and offers to all persons. Such witness we can be sure will already carry its own authority.

January 31, 1981

[Information Service 46 (1981/II) 84-96]

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